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KHALIS, Iraq (AP) -- Hundreds of U.S. soldiers raided a northern town Tuesday in a bid to smash a crime ring wanted for murder, gunrunning and a terrorist attack on a police station that killed an American soldier earlier this month.
Separately, the toll of U.S. troops killed in postwar Iraq surpassed the number killed in major combat on Tuesday, reaching 140 with the death of a soldier in a roadside bombing and another in a traffic accident.
In Tuesday's raid, soldiers backed by tanks, helicopters and Bradley fighting vehicles stormed Khalis, 42 miles north of Baghdad, hunting for the gang's notorious leader, Lateef Hamed al-Kubaishat -- known as Lateef by U.S. forces, said Col. David Hogg, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade.
Soldiers caught 24 members of the "terrorist organization" but Lateef appeared to have eluded capture, Hogg said.
"Their primary focus is probably criminal activity, but they have attacked coalition forces through direct and indirect means," Hogg told The Associated Press. "As long as he (Lateef) is in place we will not be able to establish the conditions for the Iraqi police to establish law and order in the area."
The gang claimed responsibility for a bomb that exploded outside the police headquarters in nearby Baqouba on Aug. 10, killing one U.S. military policeman, U.S. forces said. Lateef is also accused of selling weapons, burning down the Baqouba courthouse to destroy criminal records and murdering a prostitute whom he accused of providing services to U.S. troops in the area.
Lateef was imprisoned and serving multiple life sentences for murder until Saddam Hussein granted amnesty to all prisoners in October as the United States ratcheted up its case for invading Iraq, according to U.S. intelligence officers.
U.S. Army officers in the area have said they are being attacked by Baath Party loyalists, Fedayeen Saddam militia fighters and criminal gangs who simply want the region to remain unstable so they can carryout their activities unhindered.
When President Bush declared an end to major combat on May 1, the death toll of Americans stood at 138. Since then, 140 more soldiers have died, counting both deaths announced Tuesday. The total number of soldiers killed since the Iraq war began on March 20 is 278.
One of the soldiers killed Tuesday was riding in a support convoy hit by a bomb in the town of Hamariyah, 16 miles northwest of Baghdad, the military announced. Two other soldiers were wounded in that attack.
The other U.S. fatality was a soldier who was struck by an Iraqi motorist while changing a flat tire in a convoy from Tikrit to a forward base, the military said.
A third soldier, in another incident, was taken to a military hospital with an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Tuesday's raid was part of operation "Ivy Needle" launched by the 4th Infantry Division throughout its region of control. It was designed to neutralize paramilitary forces, Saddam loyalists, Fedayeen Saddam militia and other subversive elements, 4th Infantry spokeswoman Maj. Josslyn Aberle said.
The operations consist of "surgical strikes on remote areas ... where in the past we haven't had enduring military presence," Aberle said.
In Iraq's second holiest Shiite city, Karbala, Marine Lt. Col. Matthew Lopez handed over command to a Bulgarian officer whose 250-member force will begin patrolling the region. The Bulgarians are part of a larger 9,500-member international force led by Poland that will try to secure the zone in south-central Iraq that has been under the control of U.S. Marines.
A formal hand-over to a Polish commander for the entire zone will take place Sept. 3. However, Polish forces have already come under attack. Several mortar shells were fired at a Polish base in Karbala on Monday night, missing their target and causing no damage or injuries, Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski said in Warsaw. Polish media reported five to seven shells were fired at the logistics base.
"Those were warning shots indicating that there are still people ready to fight for Saddam Hussein's ideas," Szmajdzinski said.
In Baghdad, thousands of Shiite Muslims protested peacefully Monday night outside the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition, charging the occupation force was lax on security and did too little to stop a weekend of ethnic bloodshed in the north and the bombing at the house of an important Muslim Shiite cleric in the south.
The Baghdad protest moved, after about an hour, to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan office in Baghdad. The protesters alleged the Kurdish organization started the fighting Friday night in Tuz Kharmato and continued attacks on Turkomen tribesmen the next day in Kirkuk, 115 miles north of Baghdad. Eleven people died.
The protesters dispersed quietly, ahead of the 11 p.m. Baghdad curfew.
The Baghdad protesters, mainly from the Sadr City slum, had sided with the Turkomen, also Shiites. A PUK spokesman in Baghdad told The Associated Press the violence was the work of Saddam Hussein sympathizers trying to complicate the already tense security situation in the country by adding the specter of ethnic and religious violence to the mix. Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslims.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)